The Annunciation of Death

It’s a lovely day so I thought I’d turn away to the doom and gloom of the ongoing bin strike towards a much cheerier subject: death. In the film about Stephen Hawking I saw last week there was a moving segment in which Hawking sought solace in music after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given just a few years to live. The specific piece of music he discussed was the Annunciation of Death by Richard Wagner. Not being a Wagner expert I wasn’t familiar with this piece so did a bit of research over the weekend to find out more about it. That turned out to be quite interesting.

The Annunciation of Death turns out to be a leitmotif  appearing in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, often known as the Ring Cycle. Leitmotifs of various types occur throughout this epic series of four operas. Some are associated with individual characters, sometimes present on stage and sometimes absent but relevant to the drama. Other leitmotifs relate to specific emotional states, locations  or even inanimate objects (e.g. a sword).

The Annunciation of Death (in German: Todesverkundigen) makes its first appearance at the beginning of Act II Scene 4 of Die Walkürethe second Opera of the Ring Cycle, when Brünnhilde approaches to tell Siegmund of his impending death. You can see why Hawking thought of this when given his prognosis. This is the leitmotif

What’s interesting about this is that it is formed by the merger of two other leitmotifs, one relating to Erda, the Goddess of earth and the mother of the three Norns, who has the ability to see the future:

and another more generally associated with fate

Doom takes on a very specific manifestation for poor old Siegmund. Here is the leitmotif as it appears in the actual Opera, as part of the instrumental prelude to the glorious voice of the legendary Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde singing Siegmund! Sieh’ auf mich!

I never expected to learn something new about Wagner by watching a film about Stephen Hawking, but there you go!

14 Responses to “The Annunciation of Death”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I really like Wagner’s use of leitmotifs – they provide a unity to the music within each opera, and across the different operas of the Ring. They’re often great music as well. That’s something I appreciate as somebody who might ordinarily prefer symphonies over operas.

    By the way, Siegfried from Opera North in Leeds is on BBC Radio 3 from 4:30 this afternoon.

  2. There seems to be a typo at the beginning of the second paragraph.

  3. Hello. Would you happen to know the music that Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) played in his room while preparing his nine answers for Professor Sciama? I’m pertaining to the music in the record. Thank you.

  4. Sorry. I’m asking about the music in the movie The Theory of Everything.

  5. Hi, you wouldn’t happen to know what piece was played at the end of that documentary do you – during the credits? I can’t find it anywhere. The doc was called “the brief history of mine” which played again on Channel 4 to commemorate Stephen Hawking’s passing and is also available on 4oD. Many thanks for any help you can provide.

  6. It sounds a bit like something from Tristan Und Isolde but I can’t work it out.

  7. paulacuparius Says:

    It is from Akt II Die Walkure – Sigmund sings tenderly to his distraught sister (and adulterous) wife as he prepares to go into battle with her husband Hunding (who will kill him). Therefore it is his last words to her – in the last ten minutes of this Act.

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